Fort Worth

Officer in shooting acted as if responding to burglary, not welfare check, expert says

When an officer walked through the backyard of a house on Allen Avenue early Saturday, his actions mirrored those of an officer investigating a burglary, according to a law and policing expert.

However, the person who asked police to go the house told dispatchers he just wanted an officer to check on his neighbor because her front door was open.

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram asked Mike Benza, a senior instructor from the Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Cleveland, to review all of the information that police have released regarding the fatal shooting of 28-year-old Atatiana Jefferson to get a better understanding of what happened at around 2:30 a.m., when officers responded to her house in the 1200 block of East Allen Avenue.

His No. 1 question: Why was the officer acting like he was going to a burglary report?

The call to police

James Smith, who called a non-emergency police number, told a Star-Telegram reporter that he saw the doors were open and the lights were on, which struck him as unusual. He knew Jefferson, his neighbor, was home with her 8-year-old nephew.

When officers were sent to the house, they were given the following information: “(calling party) advised front doors to (address) is open … both of neighbor’s (vehicles) are in driveway: white sedan and (dark) colored sedan. Neighbors are usually home but never has door open,” according to a police log.

The 911 records provided to the public don’t give any indication that dispatchers relayed to officers that the call was a welfare check. A police call sheet on Saturday labeled the call as a “burglary.” A written statement released by police on Saturday afternoon referred to the dispatch as an “open structure” call.

Asked on Saturday afternoon what exactly dispatch told the responding officers and what the call was labeled as when officers were sent, Officer Buddy Calzada wrote in an email that more information would be shared during a press conference on Sunday. That question was not answered during the press conference.

It’s important to know what information the officers were given because Benza said officers who are going to a burglary call should react much differently than if they’re checking on someone’s welfare.

After watching the portion of body camera footage police released, Benza said, “The welfare check from the neighbor happened because of an open front door, but it doesn’t appear the officer is near the open door.”

“The question is what is he actually doing?” Benza added. “It’s hard to see but it looks like he’s in the side yard or backyard of this house, so I’m not sure exactly what it was he was doing in the moments that led up to this shooting.”

Police released on Sunday the 311 call Smith made. He told the operator “I’m calling about my neighbor” and then told her “the front doors have been open since about 10 o’clock, I haven’t seen anybody moving around. It’s not normal for them to have both of the doors open.”

He told the operator that he doesn’t know if anyone is inside the house, but that both cars are in the driveway.

Asked if the residents are usually home at that time, Smith said: “They’re usually home but they’ve never had both of their doors open and lights on. I can see straight through the house.”

When the officers go to the home, they didn’t park in front of it. Smith said on Saturday that from where the patrol vehicles were parked, Jefferson wouldn’t have been able to see them.

The officers also didn’t identify themselves as police.

Body-worn camera video shows two officers using flashlights to check the perimeter of the house, inspecting two doors that are open with closed screen doors. The lights inside the home are on but no one is visible inside. The officers don’t say anything or knock on either of the doors. They quietly walk around the house, even shining a light in at least one of the cars parked in the driveway before opening the wooden fence gate leading to what appears to be the backyard.

At the back of house, one officer appears to see a figure through a dark window, and he quickly twists his body to the left.

“Put your hands up! Show me your hands!” he shouts through the window, his gun drawn. He then fires a single shot through the window as he says “hands,” giving no time for a response.

In the video, the officer, who is shining a light through the window, does not identify himself as police.

“It’s difficult to imagine that the officer goes sneaking around a house on a welfare check,” Benza said. “It’s hard to justify that based on what the neighbor said. This was not a 911 call; the neighbor said he called the non-emergency line. So this officer seems to be handling it more of a breaking and entering with a suspect versus a ‘my neighbor’s door is open’ call.”

But despite that, Benza pointed out that the officer goes from shouting “show me your hands” to instantly firing his weapon — which he doesn’t think is enough time for an officer to even process whether someone is a threat.

According to a call log, officers were dispatched at 2:25 a.m. They arrived at 2:29 a.m. A “person down” call was made to MedStar at 2:36 a.m. When MedStar arrived, officers were giving Jefferson CPR.

Police said they found a gun in the bedroom but have not answered a question of where in the room it was found.

When asked by a reporter if the officer who shot Jefferson was threatened with a gun, police Lt. Brandon O’Neil couldn’t answer. Asked by the same reporter why police would release images of the gun if they can’t answer that question, O’Neil said he didn’t want to discuss information that would be released during another press conference scheduled for sometime on Monday.

Not enough training

After nearly every shooting that involves police, community activists call for additional training for officers.

Benza agrees that police training should be scrutinized more.

“Part of the problem is we overestimate the training we give our officers,” he said. “We think they’re highly skilled and trained but they’re learning so much in that period of time. They’re not actually getting the in-depth type of training we think they have.”

Police said the officer who shot Jefferson joined the department in April 2018. The Star-Telegram asked for a clarification on if the officer began training in April 2018 or if he began patrolling that month. Police haven’t answered.

His identity has not been released.

O’Neil said the officer is scheduled to be interviewed by the department’s Major Case Unit on Monday.

Jefferson was playing video games with nephew

S. Lee Merritt, an attorney who handles civil rights cases that involve police misconduct allegations, said his office was representing the Jefferson family.

Jefferson worked in pharmaceutical equipment sales, Merritt wrote Saturday on Facebook.

“Before law enforcement goes about their pattern of villainizing this beautiful peaceful woman, turning her into a suspect, a silhouette, or threat, let me tell you about [her,]” Merritt wrote. “She was a premed graduate of Xavier University. She was very close to her family. She was the auntie that stayed up on Friday night playing video games with her 8 year old nephew.”

“Her mom had recently gotten very sick, so she was home taking care of the house and loving her life. There was no reason for her to be murdered. None. We must have justice,” Merritt wrote.

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Nichole Manna is an investigative reporter for the Star-Telegram. Before moving to Fort Worth in July 2018, she covered crime and breaking news in Tennessee, North Carolina, Nebraska and Kansas. She is a 2012 graduate of Middle Tennessee State University and grew up in Florida.